Russian pivot to the Global South includes unscrupulous army recruiting practices

Russian pivot to the Global South includes unscrupulous army recruiting practices
There is another less explored dimension of foreign personnel recruitment in the conflict on both the Ukrainian and Russian sides. / Bramfab at it.wikipedia
By Aditya Pareek May 27, 2024

After launching its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine and being sanctioned by the West, Russia has doubled down on its overtures to countries of the Global South. It is common knowledge that Russia’s pivot to the Global South is aimed at securing new markets for its exports due to Western sanctions and securing war material to supply its forces in Ukraine. However, there is another less explored dimension of foreign personnel recruitment in the conflict on both the Ukrainian and Russian sides.

China and India have both emerged as two of the largest customers for Russian hydrocarbons, while Iran and North Korea have supported Russia with drones, ammunition including artillery shells and missiles. In more indirect avenues too, Moscow has projected its perceived support from countries of the Global South against Western calls for ostracising Russia.

While Ukraine has let foreigners join its military forces against Russia under the umbrella of its international legion, Russia has not been as publicly permissive in letting foreigners volunteer. However the high number of casualties and manpower shortages has led Russia to engage in unscrupulous recruiting practices – which has also affected South Asia.

Indians on the Russian side

At least one Indian – Ravi Singh – was fighting on the side of the pro-Russian separatist forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region during 2015, voluntarily and for ideological reasons. However, since the February 2022 invasion almost all reported cases of Indians on the Russian side refer to individuals fighting under duress.

According to a 21 February 2024 report by The Hindu an unnamed Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) official confirmed that around 100 Indian nationals had signed contracts with the Russian MoD at a single Moscow recruitment centre. The Russian official said that recruits are made aware of the risks for the role they are applying for titled “army security helpers”. Claims aside, multiple videos from victims, and media reports containing testimony of their family members suggest that most were duped into signing contracts with the Russian MoD and in at least one case the Wagner Group, without realising that they will be serving in a combat role.

In another March 2024 case, a group of Indian tourists were also tricked into signing a contract with the Russian armed forces to fight in Ukraine. According to the victims and their families the recruiters primarily targeted the victims through YouTube videos promising well-paying jobs in Russia, far away from the combat. The victims were told they will be working as menial labourers, helpers, clerks, drivers and in other support roles. However, after paying a hefty sum of money to the recruiters and arriving in Russia, the victims were coerced into signing contracts in the Russian language and with no translations, under threat of imprisonment for ten years if they didn’t sign. The government of India according to its Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has discussed the matter with their Russian counterparts and is trying to secure the release of the victims. India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) meanwhile has also made arrests and named at least 19 accused in the case, characterising the criminal enterprise as a human trafficking racket.

Sri Lankans on both sides

A similar pattern has also been observed in Sri Lanka where in a May 2024 televised interview, a victim who escaped after being duped into fighting for Russia in Ukraine, revealed that approximately 600-700 former Sri Lankan armed forces personnel like him were recruited on the Russian side. The surviving veteran also said that over 200 of his compatriots were killed and a similar number were wounded and hospitalised. The veteran added that the recruiters for the Russian army were likely headed by an Indian national which suggests that it may be the same human trafficking racket already on the radar of India’s CBI. Sri Lanka’s Minister of External Affairs in a May 2024 statement said that many Sri Lankans have been employed by mercenary groups belonging to both Russia and Ukraine.

Previously, in December 2023, reports in Sri Lankan media also revealed that the authorities had stopped a “local agent” recruiting for Ukrainian forces in the country. News of at least three former Sri Lankan armed forces personnel including a one-time special forces officer being killed while fighting against Russia for Ukraine also came to light in December 2023.

Indians on the Ukrainian side

At the start of the 2022 Russian invasion the bulk of the media attention in India was drawn by an Indian student Sainikhesh Ravichandran who joined Ukrainian forces under the Georgian National Legion. Ravichandran was reportedly studying aerospace engineering in Kharkiv’s National Aerospace University when the war broke out. Although he was reportedly ready to return to India in March 2022, according to a July 2022 report, he had decided against this. In a March 2022 report by The Hindu, it was reported that over 500 individuals from India had already applied to fight against Russia as part of Ukraine’s International Legion. It is unclear how many of these requests were granted as of May 2024. According to a report by The Week in August 2023, two more Indians who came to Ukraine as students stayed after marrying Ukrainian women, and were now fighting for the country’s International Legion.

Nepalis in the Russia – Ukraine war

In an interview with the Associated Press in January 2024, Nepal’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Narayan Prakash Saud revealed that over 200 Nepali nationals were recruited by Russia to fight against Ukraine. Saud also revealed that at least 14 were known to have been killed in the fighting. However, according to a February 2024 report by CNN, the real number of Nepalis in the Russian forces was likely somewhere over 15,000. To stop the flow of recruits to the war on both sides, the Government of Nepal stopped issuing work permits for both Russia and Ukraine in January 2024.

There have been no reports of Bangladeshis being either duped into fighting for Russia or being recruited by the Ukrainian side, but in April 2022, the Russian embassy in Dhaka produced a Facebook post saying there was no need for Bangladeshi nationals to volunteer for its forces fighting in Ukraine, suggesting that the embassy had already received offers from Bangladeshi citizens willing to fight pro-bono for Moscow.

While Russia may project a cordial relationship with the countries and governments of the Global South and especially those in South Asia, its unscrupulous methods of recruitment and the exploitation of the citizens of India, Sri Lanka and Nepal undermine its own narrative of “championing the voice of the rest – against the West”.